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FTP 101: the Basics of File Transfer

written by: sherisaid•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 8/31/2009

FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol. It is a method for clients to transfer files to and from other computers or servers over a TCP/IP network. Knowing how to use it gives you more flexibility and control over the files on your website.

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    What is FTP?

    Whenever you download a file from a server or from another computer – as in file sharing programs – you are using FTP. More specifically, you click on a link and your browser uses FTP to process the download.

    Browser-based FTP is convenient, but offers very limited options. An FTP client software is a better option for a web developer. You can use it to log into the server itself, navigate the files and folders on the server, and initiate fast file downloads and uploads. Full featured web development programs, like Dreamweaver and FrontPage have built in FTP features, and there are hundreds of programs available for download, many of them free.

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    Logging into the server

    Logging in to an FTP server is similar to logging into any website. Certain information is required; a server address or URL, plus an authorized user name and password. Here's an example:



    The first line in the example is the address of the FTP server, which is not always exactly the same as the public URL, and often contains "ftp", but not always. Your server administrator will provide that information, usually in site documentation. The login name and password are pretty self-explanatory, but they have to be set up in advance. You will not be able to create a user to log into a server. For security purposes, the system administrator must do this.

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    ASCII or Binary?

    Uploading or downloading files usually involves a simple drag-and-drop operation, although some programs require that you open the folder inside the program, select the file and click on an arrow to transfer the file to the selected folder. The file type is extremely important. There is usually an auto function, but this can break down if you're transferring a PDF file. The program may interpret a PDF fil as a text document and upload it in ASCII form, which will make the file unusable. So the auto function usually works, but it's good to know the difference. ASCII upload is for text only, regardless of file type. Binary is the choice for any document that contains pictures of art of any kind. ASCII is faster, but more basic. If you upload a PDF on auto and can't open it, change to binary and upload it again to be sure. Conversely, CGI scripts must be uploaded in ASCII mode. Most programs will recognize .pl or .cgi files as CGI and upload them accordingly, but if your uploaded script won't run, change to ASCII and upload it again.

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    Choosing an FTP Client

    Most FTP programs on the market are inexpensive and fully featured. Look for one that has an intuitive and easy to understand interface, allows you to manage multiple login accounts on different servers, saves session logs, has an auto-detect for file type modes, and allows you to set folder and file permissions.

    Using FTP is essential for any web developer. Point-and-click website design restricts flexibility for both design and content, and wastes valuable time. FTP takes a bit more skill, but allows greater flexibility and file access.